Friday, October 01, 2010

Previewing Flawed Forensic Science Week

Next week for several days, the big criminal justice news in Austin will revolve around flawed forensic science:

The Todd Willingham posthumous court of inquiry next week will be held in Judge Charlie Baird's court October 6-7, next Wednesday and Thursday. Concurrently, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Forensic Science Seminar will be held on the 7-8, or Thursday and Friday. I know I'm not the only person wondering how to split my time on Thursday, wondering where all the cool kids will be. :)

In preparation what we'll call, for lack of a better name, Flawed Forensic Science Week, I'm listening to some of the video from the Senate Criminal Justice Committee's September 7 hearing on forensic science, the first topic up that day, featuring Harris County DA Pat Lykos pleading for state funds to create a first-class regional crime lab in Houston (as opposed to the noble but failing and overtaxed second class lab they have now, was always the implication). Sen. Dan Patrick seemed particularly insistent on getting the DA to agree that the failure of the City of Houston to adequately fund their crime lab was putting the public at "risk."

I'm sure Lykos and others in Houston would like the state to pay for their crime lab's problems, but this is the wrong year to look to the state for a bailout. A quick look at the Department of Public Safety's Appropriations Request (p. 84, large pdf), which includes the agencies "mandatory" 5% cuts, shows them cutting crime lab services by more than $1.5 million in 2013 from the 2011 budgeted amount, despite rapidly rising caseloads and a growing demand for state funding of forensics. At DPS, according to the agency's LAR, the caseload is rapidly outdistancing the number of qualified warm bodies available to perform testing:
The potential of DNA testing is recognized by both the department and local agencies as the foremost criminal evidence advancement in our times. This has created a doubling in the demand for this service in just five years. The efficient processing of DNA samples from convicted offenders and from evidence in forensic cases is necessary for the success of the DNA program to assist in solving both violent and property crimes.

The Crime Laboratory Service has also seen a 100% increase, over the past five years, in the number of blood samples submitted for alcohol testing in DWl cases
DPS executive director Steve McCraw testified to the Criminal Justice Committee that DPS, which does not charge local departments for forensic services, handles about 50% of forensic examinations of all types statewide. The current waiting period for forensic requests is 9.75 months, said McCraw, who admitted that was "unacceptable." Whitmire, who earlier warned Lykos that the Lege wasn't normally in the business of subsidizing basic police functions, pointed out that DPS' policy basically subsidizes forensics for rural agencies while urban departments like Houston must pay for their own, wondering aloud if the arrangement wasn't a holdover from the days when rural legislators held disproportionate power at the capitol. It's a fair question.

State Sen. Glenn Hegar asked whether too many things were being submitted for testing, and McCraw said the problem was "ubiquitous." Listening to the discussion I kept wondering: Isn't the obvious solution for the state to begin charging local agencies for forensic services? When local agencies must pay for testing out of their own budgets, they'll be more judicious about how much testing they request, and the revenue can be used to fix or potentially even absorb into the statewide system the large local forensic labs suffering from backlogs and errors.

Irma Rios from the Houston Crime Lab manages 70 employees, reports to an assistant chief, she said, and briefs the police chief personally once per quarter, but has never spoken to Mayor Annise Parker. For a mid-level civilian manager, then, she endured quite a grilling for her trouble of coming to Austin, offering few satisfactory answers to the questions raining down from the senatorial dais. Sen. Dan Patrick was disappointed that increases in staffing funded by a federal grant would not be sustained (and the employees would be let go) when the grant funding ran out. Rios disagreed Houston was operating a "broken system" at its crime lab, insisting that they could turn around cases in a week when the DA needed evidence for the grand jury, but Sen. Whitmire pointed out her testimony contradicted the DA and strongly implied she was in denial.

Interestingly, the Bexar County Crime Lab is a completely independent department from the police, the Sheriff, and the DA, reporting directly to the commissioners court, reported director Timothy Fallon. They bill agencies that refer forensics to them on a fee for service basis. Fallon said they are a "service provider for law enforcement." The number one complaint of customers is cost, he said.

That's all I have time for this afternoon. Happy Flawed Forensic Science Week!

RELATED: From the SA Express-News, see: "Complaint filed against medical examiner's office."


Anonymous said...

Grits, you forgot about the last invited guest to speak...Dr. Tim Sliter, (Director?) of the Dallas County Crime Lab (SWIFS). Although, he stated that he was asked to go to Austin to speak on behalf of the Texas Association of Crime Lab Directors (and if you do a Google search of this organization, you’ll get zero hits.)

Strangely, Dr. Sliter suggested that the Tex. Senate consider some kind of funding to train new incoming forensic analysts in Texas labs.

Strange because at least 4 forensic analysts that started at SWIFS in 2008, left in 2009-10 because they couldn’t get through SWIFS’s training programs...

Strange because SWIFS is (still?) under investigation by the Forensic Science Commission for using expired chemicals, out-of-date lab and training procedures, and blood contamination in the labs...

Sen. Whitmire shot him down fairly quickly.

Maybe Dallas County should get things under control in their own lab before looking for handouts.

Anonymous said...

Beware the law of unintended consequences. My guess is that shifting the cost of forensic testing from the state to local governments may very well reduce local law enforcement's reliance on state labs. But it won't reduce the number of cases, and it won't reduce the number of convictions-especially in rural areas. Law enforcement and prosecutors will just become more creative, or revert back to methods which were prevelant before advances in forensic testing occurred. The tragedy will be that more innocent people who might have been cleared by quality testing will be convicted. And all the costs will be shifted back to the state for post-conviction testing and incarceration costs. I hope the Lege will think this through before they get too carried away slashing funding for regional DPS labs.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic timing!

This is the 1 year anniversary of John Bradley's usurping of the FSC!

What have they accomplished?

Anonymous said...

THIS has been my contention for over 4 years!
Forensic Science is not only flawed, but because the Medical Examiners are contracted by the county, they are also biased.
Take the case of my 19 y/o son's autopsy:
"Pale-purple fixed lividity on the posterior surface of the body, as well as on the anterior surfaces of the thighs. Tardieu spots on the thighs."
"Red-purple parenchyma with pulmonary edema."
For those less knowledgeable, lividity is 'pooling' of the blood', so my question: How do you get lividity on both sides of the body unless the body was moved? Tardieu spots are bruises deep in the skin tissue from trauma or injury. My son's thighs were NOT in contact with anything, thus, no trauma or injury! [See (Joshua Robinson) View attached documents, click underlined phrases-"on his knees"] Parenchyma is the outside lining of any organ, and in this case, it is the lungs. WE ALL have pinkish to reddish parenchyma, so this means NOTHING!
There is no etiological specific cause of death. This means heart attack, stroke, etc.
Per other Medical Examiners that have been willing to discuss this matter, any ME must have facts to base a conclusion on. Southwestern Inst. of Forensic Science/Dallas, did not have any facts, except the words of an inept detective, formerly with McGregor PD, who sent an oral report to Dallas:
"Reportedly, Joshua was a drug user" (Toxicology negative for drugs and alcohol)
"Joshua and mother fought the previous night." (SO???)
"App suicide by chain vs neck."
NOTHING IS APPARENT AT A DEATH SCENE! Criminal Investigation 101: All deaths are investigated as a homicide until proven otherwise.
I have called/emailed SWTMC/Dr. Reade Quinton, on many occasions, to inquire on what facts he based his conclusion of Suicide on and to determine the size/shape/dimension of the 'tardieu spots'. He does not return my calls or emails!
I did speak with him in August, 2007. He told me then that he initially ruled Undetermined until receiving the report from Det. Martin. He also told me there was no evidence of strangulation.
If anyone would like to view the online story: (Joshua Robinson) Or Google Joshua Robinson. I have posted this "Travesty of Justice" almost everywhere.
I have been up and down the chain of command, FBI for police misconduct, Attorney General, Lt. Governor Dewhurst, Governor Perry, Rep Chet Edwards, etc. I even requested, in writing, for an Internal Affairs Investigation, which was denied by Chief Foster/McGregor PD. I requested an Inquest, per the Texas Code of Criminal Procedures/Article 49.04~Deaths Requiring an Inquest. This was denied by both, the former and current Justice of the Peace (McLennan County, Pct 5), which is NOT their decision to make. I have filed a complaint with the Attorney General against former Justice of the Peace/Coroner, Culpepper, for failing to do his duty of taking a body temperature at the scene.
Culpepper also placed a time of death on the death certificate of 2:15AM. THIS is a rarity!
Joshua was last seen alive in Amsler Park @ 1AM by a McGregor patrol officer. Amsler Park has a 10PM curfew. Did the officer ask Joshua to vacate or did an altercation take place?
I don't know because when I asked the chief which officer, out of 2 on duty, had seen Joshua, he said, "I can't remember."